“Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful, honour and recognition in case of success.”
Small wages aside, Ernest Shackleton’s iconic job posting seeking recruits for his arctic expedition would be an apt job description for football chairmen seeking managers to lead their army of millionaire footballers into battle on the fields of the modern day Premier League. We live in a world of instantaneous gratification. A trip to the library has been replaced by tapping your finger on the screen of your smartphone. A letter or text message has been upstaged by instant messaging. Why wait until Sunday for the next episode of your TV series when you can watch the entire box set in one sitting? Yes, mankind’s level of patience has been conditioned to be at an all-time low and there is no greater evidence of this then in the world of professional football. Gone are the days of a manager building a dynasty at a club over several decades, with Arsene Wenger likely to be the last of a dying breed as trigger happy chairmen chop and change managers at the drop of a hat. Inevitably, this change in mindset has created a demand for short-term, fire and brimstone style managers who will be tasked with immediately transforming the fortunes of one’s failing side, creating a market for a specific profile of football manager: The Firefighter.
Firefighters, short-term fixes, call them what you want. There are managers who have cultivated entire careers (and millions of pounds) on their ability to create short-term, effective results for the clubs that they enter. The first name that springs to mind is Sam Allardyce. ‘Big Sam’ is far from the most glamorous figure in professional sports, and his CV reads as such. But irrespective of his reputation for pragmatic football at the expense of entertainment, he is rarely long out of a job. The sequence of events which led to the hiring of Allardyce as Everton manager, his current post, are pretty much the prototypical example of the cycle of self-destruction that exists in football today. Step 1: Get new foreign owners with little knowledge of domestic English football. Step 2: Sack your coach and bring in a foreign manager who promises a sexy brand of possession football. Step 3: Spend vast sums of money on prima-donna attacking footballers from overseas. Step 4: Watch in horror as it comes to pass that an entire squad of new players may in fact struggle to immediately gel together in the unforgiving hotbed of premier league football and watch your team plummet towards relegation. Step 5: Call in the firefighter. Step 5 is usually where Sam Allardyce gets the phone call. But he is not alone. Managers such as Tony Pulis and Alan Pardew are often called in with a similar mandate.
But the constant re-emergence of such figures at struggling clubs is far from a new phenomenon, desperate times call for desperate measures after all. However, a far less publicised archetypical manager of the Allardyce-ilk is also very much present at the dugouts of the big boys of European football. In many ways, universally adored managers such as Jose Mourinho, Jupp Heynckes, Carlo Ancelotti and even Antonio Conte share striking similarities with the aforementioned figures who find themselves eternally battling relegation. While the fires they are required to put out are less severe, and they are blessed with far superior resources, they are often just as ‘short-term’ in terms of their impact. A brief glance at Mourinho’s CV sees a clear pattern emerging: Quick success followed by an immediate departure (Porto and Internazionale) or decline (Chelsea and Real Madrid). Time will tell if his current reign at Old Trafford will see him buck this trend. Conte’s effect on the clubs he has managed has been similar, with his intense style of management seeming to yield quick returns before his players grow wearisome of his all-action style. He hasn’t stayed long enough at many of his previous clubs to highlight such shortcomings, but he did manage to alienate all around him at Juventus, and it would seem as though we are beginning to see this trend develop at Chelsea at present.
For the most part, the chairmen of the elite clubs seem just as undeterred by these trends as the managers of the also-rans are. It’s almost as if these coaches operate within different hierarchies of a managerial merry-go around, but with the exact same skill set. Their reputations remaining relatively intact irrespective of their repeated failures. Allardyce will continue to land jobs at struggling Premier League clubs, while Ancellotti will be perennially linked with those at the other end of the spectrum, regardless of how many times either of them have been sacked. This emphasis on short-term success at the expense of long-term development would appear to be the antithesis of the way business is conducted in the wider world, which may be down to the oligarch that currently hold the cards in professional football, and their irreverence with respect to financial loss. The question is: how long will this kamikaze model be sustainable? With the increasingly evident dearth of domestic talent coming through at British football clubs, it is a question that will have to be answered sooner, rather than later.
Chris Foley – Sports Editor